"There has been a determination made by the administration as a whole that our obligation is to comply with the law," Mineta said.
What if there aren't enough federal screeners on hand by Nov. 19?
"To the extent that we don't get our full strength at any airport, we may just have to cut some [checkpoint] lanes," he responded.
What will happen at the remaining lanes?
"Long lines," Mineta said. "Long lines. Long lines."
Lawmakers wrote the deadlines into law because the Transportation Department had a notorious record of watering down security recommendations. Now there is a sense that Congress may have been too prescriptive.
"Haste makes waste," said Carol Hallett, head of the Air Transport Assn., the main airline trade group. As a former U.S. Customs commissioner, Hallett once had to quickly hire 1,000 agents for the war on drugs.
"We found that doing anything of that magnitude in a short period of time, you make mistakes, you overlook things," Hallett said.
The TSA is going to have to hire about 4,000 screeners a week to meet its deadlines.
Congress itself has made the TSA's job more difficult simply by moving at its usual bureaucratic pace to approve legislation and funding. The debate over creating the agency bogged down for weeks last fall over the issue of whether screeners should be federal employees. When the Aviation and Transportation Security Act was finally signed Nov. 19, lawmakers began sending mixed messages about their level of commitment.
A senator seeking attention on an unrelated local matter stalled confirmation of TSA head John Magaw. Even now, the House and Senate have yet to pass $4.4 billion in emergency funding requested by President Bush. The agency is being kept solvent with transfers from other federal agencies, but that strategy can work for only a few more weeks before it runs into legal problems.
Mica, who had unsuccessfully argued to loosen the deadlines, said Congress may well have to make a midcourse correction. He complained that the rush to carry out the law has shut down a needed debate on what kind of aviation security system the country should have.
"Right now we have a pretty offensive system to passengers, because we're almost assuming all of them are guilty," Mica said.
"It's almost the reverse of what our justice system is based on. We should be concentrating on risk and letting the 80-year-old grandmothers go by."